Preview of Pre-filed Georgia Assembly Bills (UPDATE 1)

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(APN) ATLANTA -– State lawmakers convened the 2010 General Assembly session under the Gold Dome in Atlanta on January 11, 2010, for a Session that will last 40 days.

There are a host of issues facing the Georgia General Assembly in 2010. Atlanta Progressive News reviewed legislation that was pre-filed before the beginning of the Session. Below is a summary:

BUDGET

Georgia has collected 13.7 percent less in tax revenue in FY 2010 compared to 2009. Net revenue collections were down 5.8 percent in December 2009 compared to December 2008.

While the Assembly passed the FY 2010 budget with billions of dollars in cuts, the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI) estimates Georgia still faces a budget shortfall of over $1 billion.

“This year’s budget passed with cuts to state agencies between $700 and $800 million and the Homeowners Tax Relief Grant was cut by $400 million,” Alison Amoroso, Director of Communications for GBPI, said in an email to Atlanta Progressive News. “In July the Governor announced another $900 million in cuts. More cuts are likely. These cuts come on top of cuts to state services prior to this year.”

In an October 2009 report, the GBPI recommended Gov. Sonny Perdue and State lawmakers consider finding ways to raise more revenue in order to avoid cuts in healthcare, education, and public safety.

ETHICS

Former State Rep. Glenn Richardson (R-Hiram) left his post as Speaker of the House and resigned his seat last month after his ex-wife produced e-mails proving he carried on an affair with a lobbyist for Atlanta Gas Light while championing legislation that would have benefited the company.

The revelation sent shock waves through the state and has led some lawmakers to introduce a package of ethics reform bills for 2010.

HB 890 redefines the maximum allowable campaign contributions to candidates for statewide office.

HB 891 forbids gifts over $25 and defines a gift as “anything of value,” including food and beverages.

HB 892 creates a judicial campaign fund for Georgia Supreme Court and Georgia Court of Appeals candidates who “voluntarily accept fund-raising expenditure limitations in conjunction with acceptance of fund moneys.”

HB 893 revises the code of ethics to forbid State officials and employees from using “state resources for personal purposes of coercion, retaliation, or punishment” and from sexually harassing another individual.

A quartet of House Democrats are pushing these reforms: Mary Margaret Oliver of Decatur; DuBose Porter of Dublin, a candidate for Governor; Carolyn Hugley of Columbus; and Kathy Ashe of Atlanta.

State Rep. Bobby Franklin (R-Marietta) is the chief sponsor of HB 869, which would allow the Legislative Services Committee to redirect the salary of state lawmakers “in the event of budgetary constraints.”

In other words, the Assembly would not be able to vote itself a pay raise when lawmakers are scrambling to plug holes in the budget.

TRANSPORTATION

As previously reported by Atlanta Progressive News, State lawmakers have neglected to pass meaningful transit legislation over the previous three Sessions.

HB 277 would have imposed a statewide, one-cent sales tax to fund transportation projects.

SB 39 would have allowed special transportation districts within the state to band together to levy a one-cent sales tax for transportation projects.

Neither went to the Governor’s desk in 2009, but voters should expect a revival of, and fierce debate on, both ideas this year.

There are also two pre-filed bills pertaining to MARTA.

In 2009, the Assembly failed to pass SB 120, which would have lifted the so-called 50/50 rule and allow the agency to spend capital reserves on operational costs. As previously noted by APN, this resulted in a twenty-five cent fare increase in each standard MARTA ride which has put a burden on low-income riders. Lawmakers may try again in 2010.

State Rep. Kevin Levitas’s (D-Atlanta) HB 900 would reduce the size of MARTA’s board of directors from 18 members to seven and would allow Cobb, Gwinnett, and Clayton Counties to enter into rapid transit contracts with the agency.

EDUCATION

The Georgia Association of Educators recently released its legislative priorities for 2010 that include but are not limited to: smaller classes, prevention of privatization of public education, a living wage for all public school employees, and ensuing all education funding is restricted to public schools and programs.

HB 882, sponsored by State Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Atlanta), expands and clarifies the definition of school bullying, calls on local school boards to adopt policies to prohibit bullying, and allows bullying victims to transfer to another school.

As previously reported by APN, a Georgia student committed suicide last year after being bullied due to students’ perceptions that he was homosexual. Community groups rallied on behalf of the grieving family.

State Rep. Levitas is pushing legislation (HB 888) that would provide a code of ethics for the DeKalb County Board of Education and establish an ethics commission.

The school board voted January 4, 2010, to give DeKalb Superintendent Crawford Lewis a $15,000 pay raise. But the Organization of DeKalb Educators spoke out against the raise because teachers have been on furlough for several months.

Meanwhile, the DeKalb County District Attorney’s office is conducting a criminal investigation into the county’s school construction program. But system officials are refusing to cooperate, rejecting an Open Records Act request last week.

Sens. Lester Jackson (D-Savannah) and Donzella James (D-Atlanta) have teamed up on SB 301, which would raise the age of mandatory education from 16 to 17.

HEALTH

A trio of resolutions, two in the Senate and one in the House, take aim at federal healthcare reform.

HR 1096 and SR 794, sponsored by State Rep. Calvin Hill (R-Canton) and State Sen. Judson Hill (R-Marietta), respectively, would propose to voters “an amendment to the Constitution so as to provide that no law or rule or regulation shall compel any person, employer, or health care provider to participate in any health care system and to authorize persons and employers to pay directly for lawful health care services without penalties or fines.”

Currently, federal health care legislation being negotiated between the US House and Senate would create a mandate for all US citizens–except for low-income people–to purchase private insurance, while expanding Medicaid to cover the indigent. Individuals who do not comply with the mandate would be subject to a fine.

SR 795, sponsored by State Sen. Seth Harp (R-Midland), is slightly different in that it would propose to voters “an amendment to the Constitution so as to provide that no law shall be passed that restricts a person’s freedom of choice of private health care systems or private plans of any type, interferes with a person’s or entity’s right to pay directly for lawful medical services, or imposes a penalty or fine, of any type, for choosing to obtain or decline health care coverage or for participation in any particular health care system or plan.”

As previously reported by APN, during a November 2009 meeting with State lawmakers representing Fulton and DeKalb Counties, Grady Health System’s CEO suggested the State go after federal dollars called Upper Payment Limit (UPL) funds, which over a dozen states use to fund safety net and public hospitals like Grady.

Young estimated there is potentially $40 million in UPL funds for Georgia’s hospitals, $16 million of which could go to Grady and would be eligible for a federal matching grant.

“There is no downside to the state,” he said at the time. “That would be a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning for Georgia’s hospitals.”

Fulton and DeKalb are the only two counties that contribute public money to Grady. Young said it would take State legislation to force other counties to pay to play. He noted Grady officials are working with an unspecified lawmaker on such legislation for 2010.

Gov. Perdue’s so-called super-speeder law took effect on January 01, 2010. Under this law, drivers traveling over 85 miles per hour on a highway, or over 75 on a two-lane road, will have to pay a $200 fine to the State above and beyond any local fine.

The law is expected to generate $23 million for the State’s trauma hospitals while discouraging reckless speeding.

State Rep. Harry Geisinger (R-Roswell) hinted in November 2009 he might revive the idea of a $10 fee on all car tags, which could generate over $80 million for Georgia’s trauma hospitals.

GUNS

State Rep. Timothy Bearden (R-Villa Rica) is pushing a bill, HB 615, that would allow Georgians to carry guns almost anywhere, except for courthouses, jails, and other institutions that house criminals.

Senate Majority Whip Mitch Seabaugh (R-Sharpsburg) plans to introduce a bill that would let private property owners decide whether to allow guns on their turf, including bars, restaurants, and churches. The bill would keep guns out of government buildings, courtrooms, jails, prisons, public and private K-12 schools, and student housing on college campuses.

The Assembly passed a law in 2008 that allows citizens with proper permits to carry guns on mass transit, in restaurants that serve alcohol, and in State parks.

OTHER LEGISLATION

In 2009, the Assembly considered HR 21, sponsored by State Rep. Mark Burkhalter (R-Johns Creek), which would allow North Fulton to split off from Fulton County, and form Milton County.

The Fulton County Taxpayers Association said in November the loss of revenue from North Fulton would force a dramatic rise in taxes for residents of South Fulton in order to pay for existing services.

The idea is likely to return in 2010. If such legislation passes, Fulton County residents would then have to vote on it this fall. The Fulton County Taxpayers Association said it would take legal action to stop the idea if the bill passes.

SB 57, better known as the Georgia Fair Lending Act, passed the State Senate in 2009 with broad, bipartisan support but did not come up for a vote before the full House.

As previously reported by APN, the bill, championed by Georgia Watch, would ban prepayment penalties and broker kickbacks on subprime loans, among other things.

However, the Atlanta Fighting Foreclosure Coalition, which includes State Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta), favors more aggressive legislation over SB 57.

Meanwhile, The City of Atlanta is pushing the creation of a gaming authority and a gaming excise tax, speed detection cameras in school zones, and the suspension of drivers’ licenses for failure to pay fines.

The City would also like to raise $11 million through various taxes on alcohol as well the creation of a real estate excise tax for green space funding.

(END/2010)

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said that FY 2010 cuts had been around 500 million dollars; however, according to an email from the GBPI, the cuts were much higher than that. This article has been updated to reflect the new information.

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